Art has an ability to conflate the past, the present and the future; it does not follow the strictures of linear history. Pinchgut Opera’s Theodora, a George Handel oratorio of 1750, was the most contemporary creative work that I have seen this year.
Many are sick of the pointless scepticism of much contemporary theatre and art. A question present in much contemporary philosophy and cultural production is: “How can we retain some faith, some authentic belief in an age of uncertainty?” Handel teamed up with the librettist, Reverend and political philosopher, Thomas Morrell to answer just that question.
Thomas Morrell was a character straight out of the English Enlightenment of the mid 18th century. It was a period when the old worldview was being challenged from all sides, both in politics and science (perhaps embodied by thinkers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton respectively). It is not a surprise that the Baroque’s fragmentation and anxieties have found fertile ground in our current age.
In his notes on John Locke’s treatise on human understanding, Morrell countered Locke’s new empirical and rational outlook with the wish to maintain some of the irrational power of the spirit and love. Theodora is a creative expression of this aim. Through music and text, it invests the everyday material world (our laws, the flowers, our relationships) with the beauty of divine light. This stunning intellectual construction was reified in this brilliant production of Theodora.
The story is set in the town of Antioch (now in present day Turkey), where a debauched Rome is forcing its gods and will on the underground Christian community. In the end, Theodora and her lover Didymus become martyrs to their cause.
In some of the pre-performance interviews conducted by Pinchgut, the context of Trump’s win in the US presidential election was mentioned. But the magic of Lindy Hume and Dan Potra’s direction and design is that it suggests we are all implicated in the rise of divisive and racist politicians. Peter Sellars’ 1996 production made more of Valens, the Roman president of Antioch, as a form of alt-right fascist. In Pinchgut’s, everyone is in a politicians’ suit; the opening was directed as a cabinet meeting, much closer to home.
In a piece of magic realism, Potra has gloved one of Valens’ arms; the sleeve coloured as if a gangrenous growth of violence and cruelty is infecting the bodies of the Romans, almost like a Dorian Grey or Mr Hyde character.
They are all held together by this shared, but perhaps secret, ugliness. Valens himself, played by Andrew Collis, is base, and bumbling, part drunk clown/part angry fool. Collis controls his voice skilfully in his arias, moving between the sonorous and something more colloquial.
The set is largely horizontal and never really lifts above the ground. The world is spare and desolate. In a way, the solemnity of the performance sat somewhere between an opera and the ministration of the oratorio. There were some elegantly restrained moves. The feasting table of the beginning of Act 2, becomes the floor of Theodora’s brothel prison. The drunken bodies of the feast before lie down beneath the table to become the miserable and lusty bodies of the brothel floor.
The Chorus too was used a number of times to turn between pity and hope. The Chorus not only sang tightly as an ensemble but was the most important aspect of the spatial construction of the set. The intimacy of the space, and the humility of the direction engendered a direct relationship between the audience and the performers.
Above this spareness of an oppressive society, raised in defiance, was the sublimity of the voices. The vertical was represented in the set by a space between the stage and a stormy cloud of fate through which occasionally, and at careful moments, the divine light – by lighting designer Matthew Marshall – pierced through like the hand of providence.
Conductor Erin Helyard was uncharacteristically firmly placed on his feet the whole night; he controlled the orchestra in a steady constancy that also encompassed the piety of the music. The orchestration was again a form of horizontal pulse on which the singers took flight.
Valda Wilson as Theodora was a triumph. Her voice was full of loving intimacy tempered by a clarity of purpose and strength. This contradiction was often played up by an acted fragile physicality (especially in the aria “With Darkness Deep”). “Angels, Ever Bright and Fair” was equally bright and warm while maintaining strength along the line.
Didymus, sung by Christopher Lowry, had the sublime purity and heroism of the counter tenor and his Baroque flourishes were crisp. But it was in the three duets that these two really took flight. The easy balance showed a generosity of artistic creation.
The whole conceit of the oratorio became apparent under a strange blue light in their duet, “Thither let our hearts aspire”. In this production it was unclear whether this was during, before or after death. It was in fact outside the spatial and temporal constraints of the play. The power of the singing doubled the radicalness of their act. Their love and faith was not, in the end constrained by the oppressive society. It was above and beyond it.
When the chorus then sang “O love divine”, the import of Theodora was made clear. What we should be striving for is a politics and social construction made not on hatred and control but on love and faith.
The martyrs’ act of self-destruction and sacrifice was not an end but instead an opening up to new political constructions. Perhaps opera is the perfect vehicle for this sort of expression: as the bodies die, the music still raises up to new possibilities, to a contemporary political imperative.